Twelve Mile Circle faced a bit of a geographic dilemma in western North Carolina towards the end of the week. I began to notice that I might risk a doughnut hole county if I wasn’t careful. That condition would occur if I counted a bunch of contiguous counties and then left one in the middle uncovered. I’d hate to do that. I’m not getting any younger and I may not have an opportunity to come back again and clean it up.
That’s when I decided that I couldn’t leave Rutherford County unvisited even if its local seat of government had the unwieldy name of Rutherfordton. I understood the need to honor Griffith Rutherford, brigadier general in the American Revolutionary War, but couldn’t they have at least named to town simply Rutherford or even Griffith? Nonetheless I now needed to contrive a reason to stray into Rutherford with the family and avoid an unsightly doughnut hole on my county counting map. There appeared to be a nice park and a lake about 25 miles (40 kilometres) southeast of Asheville that would do the trick. It actually worked out quite nicely, both because it satisfied my ulterior motive and because it was a genuinely enjoyable spot.
The body of water turned out to be Lake Lure (map). A town of the same name hugged its shores. Lake Lure was an artificial creation of the Morse family. They dammed the Broad River within a particularly scenic Blue Ridge valley in the 1920’s, creating a roadside tourist attraction that still remains popular. The Town of Lake Lure purchased the lake in the 1960’s and turned it into a public park, including the attractive man-made beach. It was a great spot for the kids. They enjoyed the beach and playing at the adjacent water park. Later that morning we rented paddle boats and circled the lake a couple of times until the sun and humidity drove me back to a shaded shoreline. We finished the morning with lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake.
We devoted the afternoon to Chimney Rock (map), another attraction on the northwestern nub of Rutherford County. The Morse family must have had an entrepreneurial streak because they also turned Chimney Rock into a tourist destination at the turn of the last century. Otherwise the outcrop probably would have been just another granite pinnacle. They saw its appeal and went so far as to bore an elevator shaft through the cliff nearby so visitors could reach the promontory almost effortlessly. The state of North Carolina purchased the property in 2007 and Chimney Rock State Park became one of the state’s newest additions. Along with the 315 foot (96 metre) spire itself, the park offered miles of hiking trails and a magnificent waterfall.
The elevator was closed for repairs during our visit so we had to climb the switchback stairways up to Chimney Rock. That wasn’t as bad as it sounded. There were plenty of intermediary ledges that offered increasingly better views of the valley far below so it broke-up the climb into manageable chunks. My younger son and I decided to climb even higher while the rest of the family stopped at the snack bar for ice cream. I’d noticed a wonderfully-named promontory mentioned on the trail guide and I was drawn to it — Exclamation Point!
I was in pretty good shape, having completed the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail recently. I had no problem climbing several hundred steps. My son had abundant childhood energy so we practically flew up the mountain, leaving most of the other visitors in the dust as we climbed up to Exclamation Point at 2,480 ft. (756 m.). We overheard two sweaty and exhausted teenagers commiserating with their friend on the summit. They’d been passed by "an old man and a kid." That was us! Maybe their embarrassment will encourage them to put down the Cheetos and get off the couch every once and awhile. Yes, I felt smug. I admit it.
Another Exclamation Point
Exclamation Point was such an awesome name that I had to see if it had ever been used elsewhere. Actually, the U.S. Geological Survey listed only one Explanation Point in its Geographic Names Information System, and it wasn’t even the one in North Carolina. Apparently the Explanation Point near Chimney Rock was an unofficial designation. The only Explanation Point recognized by the USGS could be found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Montrose County, Colorado. Hikers can experience this outcrop by taking a moderate route on the North Rim of the park, three miles round trip on the North Vista Trail.
It looks like I found another spot to place on my list of things to visit someday.
Subscribers to the 12MC Twitter site likely noticed that I’d been on vacation recently and probably already understood that it foreshadowed another travelogue. You’ll be happy with the next several articles if you like those.
I was in Western North Carolina using Asheville as my base of operations for the week. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call the region. Was it Western North Carolina, or merely Western Carolina? There was a Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and a Western Carolina Regional Airport in Andrews, both in North Carolina, although the name seemed to shortchange people who lived in Western South Carolina. Ultimately I decided to name this travel series "Western North Carolina" because it seemed to be more precise as well as the more common usage even though it offered an overabundance of cardinal directions in my mind. Either way I didn’t get too concerned.
First we had to get down to Asheville, though. I didn’t take the most logical or direct route. That would be anathema to any dedicated county counter worth his mettle. We headed first to Chapel Hill for an overnight stop. My wife had a connection to the University of North Carolina and this was her first trip back there in nearly twenty years. That’s how I sold a concept that would set-up a county counting adventure far away from Interstate Highways on the second day of the drive down to Asheville.
Chapel Hill remained as nice as it had a couple of decades ago so everyone seemed to enjoy the detour. I even noticed an interesting sundial outside of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium (map) that would have been a perfect addition to my remarkable sundials article had I known about it earlier.
We headed to Asheville after Chapel Hill. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, I spent several days in town and never caught a glimpse of its most famous attraction. I guess a random one-time reader who landed on this page through a search engine query might be surprised, even shocked with my decision. How could someone travel all the way to Asheville and completely avoid the Biltmore Estate — the largest home in the United States — constructed by George Vanderbilt in the 1890’s? Most of the regulars, however, probably knew that 12MC often disregarded the obvious sites for those more esoteric. Plus I’d already seen a bunch of large estates on my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island. I didn’t need to see another house, not even the biggest one (map)
A tip of the hat goes to Loyal Reader Rhodent who suggested I focus my attention elsewhere. He offered sage advice that led to lesser-known attractions like…
Western North Carolina Nature Center
When I saw the phrase "nature center" I cringed a little because I thought it might be like the little nature center near my home. I expected the typical couple of rooms with turtles, snakes and a few dusty taxidermy birds, and maybe a short walking trail through the trees. The Western North Carolina Nature Center was actually more of a small zoo (map). It featured all the familiar fauna one would expect from the local area tucked into an expansive wooded hillside. The kids loved it. I will also add that the white-tail deer there were the luckiest ones alive. Imagine having shelter, regular feedings and a peaceful place to stay during hunting season!
I began each morning with a walk through a different section of Asheville. The city offered a compact inner-core and I became familiar with its basic layout quickly. Asheville centered on Pack Square Park (map) and radiated out in all directions from there. A larger share of what I’d lovingly call itinerant hippies congregated throughout downtown, certainly more than what I’d expected for a city of its size. They seemed harmless enough, as if the only real "danger" might involve an unexpected drum circle or getting tangled in a web of white guy dreadlocks, or perhaps catching a vague waft of smoke of questionable origin. I’m quite immune to panhandlers and buskers thanks to years of living and working in a highly urbanized environment so I just went about my walks.
Much of my wandering involved the South Slope area, named that way because it occupied a downhill slope immediately south of downtown. What the designation lacked in originality it made up for in accuracy. It was also an area of great transition and clearly hit a tipping point towards gentrification recently. The craft breweries came first and continued to arrive. A couple of years ago this was little more than several rows of small, grimy warehouses and blue-collar businesses in various states of disrepair. Some of those elements remained and I took great delight in finding the original remnants prior to their transformation. And certainly they will transform. Soon. I saw construction everywhere; loft apartments, boutiques and more breweries on the way.
I also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods just north of downtown like Historic Montford and the areas around Charlotte Street (map) with beautiful homes from the turn of the last century up through the 1930’s. It reminded me a lot of my own neighborhood before people started bulldozing historic homes to replace them with McMansions. Hopefully Asheville has better zoning laws to protect its vintage character.
Asheville provided a great central hub to the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains with abundant hiking, climbing, swimming, and rafting. We would pursue all of those activities in due course. However I can’t deny that an immense concentration of breweries springing from the hillsides attracted my attention too. I like to visit breweries although I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire article devoted to Asheville breweries coming soon.
Twelve Mile Circle is just getting started on this Western North Carolina trip report. Hopefully there will be something for everyone whether casual tourists, outdoor enthusiasts, hardcore geo-geeks or whatever. In the meantime, feel free to view my public photo album if you simply can’t wait to see where this is all heading.
The expression "Flat as a Pancake" obviously means that something would be considered extremely flat. There are several U.S. states, led by Florida, that are indeed even flatter than a pancake. That’s not what this article is about. Rather I found a location that may or may not have been flatter than a pancake although it should be flatter if its name did it justice. The Geographic Names Information System identified it as Pancake Flats.
I expected to find virtually nothing about this highly obscure spot northwest of Altoona, Pennsylvania that wasn’t even significant enough to be identified on online maps (for example). Yet, people have been there. Lots of them. It was one of the signature features, albeit a relatively flat feature set amongst much rougher terrain, along the Greensprings Trail at Wopsononock (Wopsy) Mountain. The Bureau of Land Management described it as a "2.2 mile loop. Mainly level, low difficulty."
That was the only Pancake Flats listed although there were 48 other entries for various other Pancakes in the United States.
Pancake, West Virginia
I found very little information about populated places called Pancake. Locations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas did manage to stand out from the crowd a bit.
Pancake, West Virginia (map) consisted of little more than an abandoned whistle stop along the South Branch Valley Railroad named for the Pancake family. However, nearly everyone bearing the Pancake surname listed in Wikipedia came from West Virginia. The surname clearly signified something significant along the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Pancake, Pennsylvania (map) was a bit more notable. It gained its name in the early 1800’s. I found a Pancake History that included an excerpt from the Saturday, April 2, 1955 edition of The Washington Reporter, of Washington, Pennsylvania.
An air of mystery hovers around the name of George Pancake, one of the early settlers at the little village of that name just east of Washington. Where he came from, when and what became of him are questions that will probably never be answered. He was here for 12 years, and then drifted on west to Ohio… In spite of all efforts to change, the name of Pancake has clung to this village through more than 135 years. First it was Williamsburg, then Martinsburg, and finally Laboratory after Dr. Byron Clark secured a post office for his patent medicine mail order business. But, everyone called it Pancake, and Pancake it still is because it struck the popular fancy as the name of America’s most popular breakfast dish.
Pancake, Texas (map) didn’t exactly qualify as a booming metropolis either. It was large enough nonetheless, to gain an entry in Texas Online from the Texas State Historical Association.
Pancake is at the intersection of Farm roads 2955 and 217, thirteen miles northwest of Gatesville in northern Coryell County. A post office opened there in 1884 with John R. Pancake as postmaster… The population of Pancake was reported as twenty-five from the 1930s through the 1960s. No further estimates were available until 2000 when the population was eleven.
Interestingly, anytime I uncovered the origins of a town called Pancake it tied back to someone named Pancake. I attempted to find out where the name came from with mixed results. Ancestry.com said it was German: "Translation of German Pfannkuch(e), North German Pannkoke, Pankauke, or Dutch Pannekoek(e), metonymic occupational names for someone who made and sold pancakes." One of those family crest websites — and yes apparently there was a Pancake family crest — said it was Cornish.
On the other hand, geographic features named pancake seemed to derive from their appearance, said to resemble either a single pancake (i.e., very flat and round) or a stack of pancakes. Pancake Flats was a good example of that principal and I found a couple of others that seemed to qualify likewise.
There was an entire set of mountains stretching 90 miles (140 kilometres) in the central part of Nevada called the Pancake Range. That was probably the largest geographic pancake feature anywhere. U.S. Route 50, a stretch once dubbed the loneliest road in America, crossed directly over the range. It traveled across Pancake Summit (map) at an elevation of 6,521 feet (1,988 metres).
There were pancakes in Canada too! I found a nice one in Ontario called Pancake Bay (map). There was even a Provincial Park located on the bay with "3 km of beautiful sand beach and Caribbean blue water."